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Untold stories of victims kidnapped by Nigeria’s gunmen


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AS fear grows in Nigeria over rising insecurity, aggravated by banditry, kidnapping, insurgency, militancy, and other social ills, The ICIR’s Marcus Fatunmole and Bamas Victoria report tales of citizens who were kidnapped and held hostage, including those who were released after paying huge sums as ransoms.

“My daughter gets frightened whenever she sees a policeman or hears loud banging.”

“She was three when I was kidnapped,” Uzoma tells the ICIR.

“She says ‘police came to pick my daddy,’ but I keep on correcting her that they were not police but bad people.”

Uzoma, like several victims of abduction, lives with constant reminder of the sordid ordeal long after it has happened.

He says he constantly has to tell his now five-year-old daughter that not all armed men are ‘bad people.’ He explains that whenever she sees an armed policeman, she still insists that they want to ‘take my daddy.’

A black Christmas

Two days to the Christmas of 2019, Uzoma was abducted in his house in the presence of his family – a wife and three children, the youngest, a month-old infant.

He recalls that he was in his room with his daughter when he started hearing loud noises.

“At first I thought it was knockouts,” he says. But as the sound continued, he decided to check.

He went to the kitchen door, but several things happened simultaneously in few seconds.

First, he made an eye contact with an armed person. Secondly, there was a realisation that the sounds were gunshots, that he was being robbed and needed to secure the door and get his family to safety.

Doors from Uzoma's house
Doors from Uzoma’s house.

“I could hear gunshots fired at the door and later what appeared to be a dagger being used to hack the kitchen door,” he says.

A few minutes later, there was loud banging on the bedroom door where Uzoma and his family were hiding. Meanwhile, he had contacted the neighbourhood vigilante who also said they could hear the gunshots.

“I don’t blame them, what do you expect them to do against such firepower?”

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“The vigilante were proactive, but these people overpowered them. They had Dane guns, but the abductors had AK-47, so you cannot compare them.”

The abductors had two two extra magazines each, Uzoma explains.

Uzoma says he opted to call the vigilantes first instead of the police because they were closer.

The banging was now on his bedroom door. He took his family into the bathroom. They gained access and their next port of call was the bathroom door. The sound was getting louder and his son was crying, which made his wife open the door.

He saw several armed men in the room. One of them was going round taking all the valuables he could find, including money, clothes, bedsheets, and towels. The armed men also had his wife’s phones.

“I told them to take everything, and they could have our cars too,” Uzoma says. But the only response he got was “Muje, let’s go” from one of the armed men who handed him a dashiki shirt.

That was when he realised that this could be an abduction.

He was taken outside where he was made to sit down on the ground alongside three other men. One of the men was bleeding from a machete cut which he sustained while trying to escape.

Uzoma says he counted 15 abductors with nine of them armed with guns.

“It is incredible. They even had bags containing bullets,” Uzoma says, still in disbelief.

The long trek and the many Abuja mountains

Abuja is filled with hiking clubs.  At weekend members hike numerous hills, rocks, and mountains. But for Uzoma, his hiking that day was not for pleasure.

The abductors had a tracker called ‘Smallie’ who knew the route. “I am not sure that boy is up to 20, he wasn’t carrying a gun,” Uzoma recalls.

“I think he is a younger brother to the leader,” he explains.

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“They had cooking utensils; they even had a solar panel used to charge their phones and a translator,” he says.

The translator, a Tiv man, went by the alias ‘Abiola.’

Abiola was the only non-Fulani among the kidnappers.

Uzoma says when the trek began, the abductors were 15 with nine guns, but when they got to their first stop, their number decreased to 13. Two persons had left; one with a gun and another without.

He says that they came across a herd of cows at one point and an elderly man appeared. The leader of the abductors walked quickly towards the man and knelt. He spoke in a language Uzoma suspected to be Fulfulde and the elderly man responded as if he was giving them direction.

The trek continued. They avoided villages, came across some palm wine tappers and the abductors forcefully collected their palm wine. They walked until it was 6am. Uzoma says he knew the time because his wife’s phone alarm had gone off. And still, they did not stop.

During his abduction, Uzoma, who could not understand the Hausa language, came to know words like ‘Kwanta,’ ‘Muje,’ ‘Tashi’ – Lie down, Let’s go, Get Up . These were words used to bark commands at him.

Uzoma says he noticed that the abductors gave him a special treatment in the sense that they did not give him tasks or ask him to carry luggage like they did others.

He later found out that the three other abductees were not targeted, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. At the end of the first day, the three of them were released after paying a total of 1 million naira ransom and 15,000 naira call card vouchers.

They had to relocate, which meant another round of trekking. He says he knew they were in Kuje Area Council because he could see the Nnamdi Azikiwe international airport lights.

The journey had begun from Ketti, a community around Lugbe axis in Abuja Municipal Area council.

Uzoma says the kidnappers would never use their lines to contact the victims’ families – they instead used the victims’. They also demanded that the victim’s families send airtime to the phone line. And after every conversation with a victim’s family, they would call and relay the message to someone whom they referred to as ‘Yellow.’

Uzoma believes Yellow calls the shot, because he (or she) determines whether they should collect a negotiated sum or not.

They asked his family to bring 30 million naira for his release.

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He laughed when he was notified.  “I told them, ‘If I have 30 million naira, would I be living in that community?”

They frequently changed location; this meant more trekking.

The double life of Kidnapers

Folarin Philip Banigbe was abducted in the early hours of May 1, 2016, in Port Harcourt. His was targeted.

Folarin would later document his experience in a book titled, ‘The Abduction Chronicles.’

Folarin Philip Banigbe
Folarin Philip Banigbe captured his kidnap experience in his book “The Abduction Chronicles”.

“I assumed they were area boys trying to steal a few things, but afterwards, I realised they were more serious criminals. When I engaged them, they shot into the house. They knew who they wanted and robbed us blind before taking me,” Folarin says.

He explains how sophisticated he realised the criminality was.

READ ALSO: Accidents, deaths and kidnappings escalate as FG drags feet on Abuja-Kaduna-Kano road construction

“Those who picked me up were different from the transportation party who then handed me over to the keeper, before allowing me to talk to the negotiator,” Folarin says.

There were three people per shift and three shifts in a day.  One of the guards was nick-named ‘WAEC Boy.’

He was guarded by nine persons, but he picked interest in the WAEC Boy  because “he engaged me the most from the moment I was captured.”

“From him, I realised that criminals rationalise their criminality. Nigerians have multiple personalities. The way you see somebody in a church, or a mosque is pretty much not who he is at home or in the presence of his friends,” Folarin explains.

Some of guards talked about how they were going to take some girls out later and have some drinks.

These men had taken criminality as an occupation, but would often go back to their normal lives.

He stated that “I looked around and kept asking myself how many people like this could be regular people by day but criminals in the night and you will not even know.”

This is a similar observation shared by Uzoma who says his kidnappers said Muslim prayers in batches, usually in the morning and evenings.

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Towards the end of his captivity, Abiola had become chatty, always making calls to his wife and his mistress and talking about how women could be problematic.

Kidnap attacks and deaths between 2011 and January 24, 2021
Kidnap attacks and deaths between 2011 and January 24, 2021

Uzoma feels that his abductors were either from Sokoto State axis or their next job was slated in Sokoto. This was because they mentioned ‘Sokoto’ a lot in their conversations.

At their next location, which would turn out to be the last, Uzoma could pick out the infrequent sound of motorcycles. This meant they were close to a village.

Abiola told him they had reached an agreement with his family. His brother, who was to deliver the ransom, was asked to come with a Hausa interpreter and call card vouchers.  This was December 27, 2019.

His brother brought the money-over 4 million naira.

“Do you know that these people took their time to count the money to make sure it was complete before they released me?” Uzoma asks rhetorically.

Uzoma speaks about other kidnappers:  Biggie who was big and not very bright but shows incredible dexterity at dismantling and coupling guns; Tallest who was the tallest and had a gun with a spearhead; and there was an effeminate one who he says ‘walks like a woman.’

Ransom paid – free at last but the hurdles are not yet over

Aside the paperwork at the police station, Uzoma’s extended family and friends had to foot his medical bills. He also had to relocate his family 24 hours after his release. This meant paying rent and shouldering the all expenses that came with moving.

A series of kidnappings in Ketti had left people leaving the community.  He would later find out from the police that the informant, who told the abductors about him, was paid 75,000 naira.

It is over one year now but Uzoma is still paying off “the debt that was incurred from paying the ransom.”

He had built a house in the community because it was cheaper and gave him time to save and buy in one of the Abuja estates. But he is back to square one.

His family are still traumatised Aside his daughter, his wife lives in constant trepidation. And him? He often cannot sleep without sleeping pills. “It is an experience I do not wish on my enemies,” Uzoma says, while shaking his head.

Between 2011 and January 2021, a total of 849 kidnap incidents in the country, leading to 529 deaths, were recorded, data from Nigeria Security Tracker shows.  A total of 1,990 persons were kidnapped and 288 kidnappers were neutralised by security agencies in the country.

The crime peaked in the country in 2020, as 219 cases and 110 deaths of victims were recorded, respectively. Number of victims were 601, and 58 of the kidnappers were neutralised.

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These numbers are not all-encompassing as they are limited to those that made the news.

A considerable number of these victims ended up paying negotiated ransoms.

A robbery? No, a kidnap and one location too many

On July 19, 2020, Bem, a developmental worker, was in his house in Logo Local Government Area of Benue State. When he heard a noise, he opened his door to check and he came face to face with a hooded man holding a gun.

“The first thought that crossed my mind was that it was a robbery,” Bem recalls.

The man was not alone. They were four armed hooded men.

They came into his house, took all the valuables they could find, including his phone and laptop, and asked for his car keys. They covered his face with a beanie and sandwiched him at the back of his car.

They drove for hours. At a point, they ditched the car and continued the journey on motocycles.

His abductors spoke in Tiv – they were most likely locals or people from Tiv land or those who had lived in the area for a long time.

He was taken to a thatched hut where he would spend the next five days before his release on the July 24, 2019.

They took out all the money in his account using his ATM cards and demanded for 7 million naira ransom.

When the family finally paid a negotiated sum, they took him on a motocycle after a few hours and left him stranded.

“I didn’t know where I was. I had no money, and it was dark already,” Bem told The ICIR

He walked until he got to a police checkpoint. “I told them, ‘Officers, I don’t know where I am.”  This got their attention. Because it was late, he had to sleep at the checkpoint. This was at Ukum LGA of Benue State, 61km from where he was abducted.

Bem would later learn that the ransom was collected at yet another LGA, Gboko. This was 118km from Ukum and 120km from Logo.

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He also believed the negotiator was also in another Local government. He was probably held in a local government different from where he was released.

Kidnapping Nigeria gunmen
The many locations used in Bem’s kidnapping

Unlike in the case of Uzoma, but like in the case of Folarin, the abductors holding him hostage were not directly involved in the negotiation, neither were they involved in the ransom pick-up.

“These people are highly organised,” Bem says.

His family had picked up his vehicle where it was ditched. After his release he wemt to the police station, made his report, picked up his vehicle, got to his apartment, packed his things and left for good.

Bem, who now stays in Markurdi ,has no plans of returning to Logo in the nearest future. It is not a memory he wants to relive.

He also says there is no form of mental, physical, psychological, financial assistance or referrals or system put in place for people like him. At least, none from the police station, which is usually one of the first points of contact for kidnapped victims. Uzoma also holds the same belief.

Bem was not the actual target. He says it was a case of the abductors coming to the wrong house.

From shortcut to 9 days captivity

Adekola, a retired senior official of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), was driving home from Kuje on Monday October 7, 2019.

He stays in Pegi, a community in Kuje Area Council of the FCT.

He opted to take a shorter but bushy route against his wife’s advice because he wanted to get home faster as “It was getting late,” he says.

A few poles after driving past the community vigilantee, he was flagged down by armed men.

His car was not the only one. The men selected captives from different vehicles while discharging the lucky ones.

Getting home faster was no longer a priority for Adekola but making it out alive.

This was the beginning of a long tortuous and haunting nine-day experience for him, his teenage cousin and the other abductees.

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He counted 15 men all armed with AK-47 and other rifles.

The kidnappers and their characters

The kidnappers, who were mainly of Fulani descent from their looks, spoke Fulfulde and the Nigerian pidgin English, Adekola says.

After trekking for many hours, their valuables were taken, they were beaten and asked to state their names, state of origin, among other bios.

“We were made to run like cows in the bush and it was a big offence for anyone not to run as the kidnappers did. They always wanted everything to be done fast,” Adekola narrates.

“They threatened and hit us with daggers, guns, sticks, machetes and other weapons as if they just wanted us to die by any means other than gunshot or butchering,” he says.

They were asked how much they could pay as ransom – an unfavorable answer meant severe beatings. This was also repeated in the hearing of an abductee’s family whenever they negotiated for a lower fee.

Adekola says the kidnappers worked in shifts. Every morning, a new set would be brought in.

Different states, different victims same modus operandi

The kidnappers would only communicate with the victims’ families through abductees’ phones. And they spoke to a person’s family only once in a day, Adekola explains.

A man was brought in. His job was to appeal to them to cooperate with their captors – a tactic of the kidnappers to use carrot-and-stick approach.

Victim lost all contract money paid into his account because of credit alert

Adekola narrates the account of one of the victims who got a credit alert while in captivity. The money was meant for a contract. The kidnappers would hear nothing of such. They made the elderly man transfer the money to them. He was left with 189 naira. And it did not stop them from whipping him or demanding ransom from his family.

Our kidnappers would threaten us: ‘We are asking you to pay 10 million naira, you said you could not afford it – money that is not enough for us to buy bullets. We will waste you, the money that your family cannot find to bail you here, they will look for it to do your obituary.

“Our kidnappers would threaten us: ‘We are asking you to pay 10 million naira, you said you could not afford it – money that is not enough for us to buy bullets. We will waste you, the money that your family cannot find to bail you here, they will look for it to do your obituary,” Adekola recounts.

They were fed once a day by meals prepared by their captors. They slept on the ground, in the open, under the rain which fell almost every day.

Their legs and hands were bound and then they were chained together. This made a bad situation even worse as they could not turn while lying down.

“Donkeys were better than me in those days,” he says.

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It is over a year now, but Adekola, who is a retired security officer, is still haunted by his experience. He visibly shakes while recounting his travail.

The series of kidnappings put fear on the residents of Pegi community. Those who could afford to relocate did.

Kidnappers confused on whether to sell or release victims

As days went by, so also were abductees whose ransoms were paid released. This brought their number to four.

The kidnappers were at an impasse about what to do with them. Some wanted them to be sold to a herbalist in Enugu while others insisted it should be in Benue. This meant walking in one direction and then turning to another depending on who was winning the argument.

His teenage cousin and another child were released. This brought momentary relief for Adekola. But the fear that his cousin, who was new in town, would not be able to make it out of the bush took over.

Fortunately, they made it out a few days later.

Adekola narrates the story of another elderly abductee who was diabetic, and his leg got swollen and could barely move. He was beaten mercilessly.

“So, at a point, he could no longer bear the pain. He asked his son to look for a stick with sharp edge to burst the swollen leg for him. Immediately the boy did it, huge fluid spurted out of the leg” he states.

Adekola gathered the man was the main target. Unlike Uzoma, who got preferential treatment for being the main target, this man was the recipient of the kidnappers’ ire.

At one time, a helicopter flew past, which meant more beating for the man.

The kidnappers told the man that it was his family that were mounting pressure on security agencies to hunt for them.

The man’s family eventually paid 2 million naira and Adekola’s family brought 1 million naira. They were then taken on motorcycles and released around Abaji, another area council in the FCT.

 

At Abaji, a combined security team were already patrolling the area because the news had gone wide. They were taken to the hospital and the bill settled by the Federal Capital Territory Administration, Adekola says.

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A tale of two brothers and their neigbhours

In Kaduna, two young brothers were part of the people kidnapped, at Rido in Chikum LGA of the state in February 2020.

They regained their freedom after 13 days and 1 million-naira ransom paid.

Two of their neighbours, a father and daughter, were also abducted the same night, the young brothers’ guardian, Stephen says.

The kidnappers also collected call cards worth 200,000 naira from the two families.

One of the brothers has returned to their village vowing never to live or work in Kaduna township again because of the fear of being re-kidnapped. The traumatised graduate of Kaduna State University now farms with his parents.

 

They were kidnapped while at home, made to trek for days and an initial 30 million naira asked as ransom.

“Initially, they asked for N30 million for the four of them. We kept negotiating till they settled for 500,000 naira each. We later paid the money, making it 2 million naira for all of them. We were also made to pay for recharge cards which they used to communicate with us. That was 100,000 naira. They told us they did not want money, but the recharge card. So, we were able to buy the card from the people printing recharge card.”

“When we paid the money, the abductors did not release them immediately. They told our brother-in-law that took the money to them to go home. They promised they would release them. So, our brother-in-law went home and by evening of that day, they were released,” Stephen told the ICIR.

We did not involve the police as they told us they would “waste the lives of our people” if we reported.

From work to kidnappers’ den

In the second week of December of 2020, Abiodun, a father of four ,was kidnapped alongside two men and a woman.

Abiodun had gone to a community in Kaduna to work on roofing a house belonging to an engineer.

At midnight, gunmen stormed their lodge and took them to the forest.

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“We walked in the forest for three days,” he says, as he shows a scar from an injury he sustained from the period.

He is resident in Abuja.

Abiodun did not want to speak to the press because he believed the kidnapers had informants and knew the city.

After his  release, he went to report at a police station at Rijana community in Kaduna state.

Abiodun was the first to be released after his family had paid the 500,000 naira ransom. He confirmed others were eventually released for the same amount.

He said his kidnappers had a radio from which they monitored news, adding that they made jest of threats by security agents to fish them out.

The visibly trembling man said the kidnappers used charms, guns, and other weapons to conduct their ‘business.’

Anti-kidnapping laws

Not all victims of kidnapping make it out alive to tell their stories.

It is 2021 and reports of kidnapping still abound in the media space. This is despite the anti-kidnapping laws put in place by states.

Some state governors have signed anti-kidnapping bills into law to curb the crime within their jurisdictions.

In the anti-kidnapping bill signed by Governor Abdullahi Ganduje, kidnappers who kill their victims are to face death penalty, while those who kidnap but do not kill their victims will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bauchi, Bayelsa, Osun, Katsina, Nasarawa, Plateau, Lagos, Benue, Enugu, Kogi, Delta, Imo, Akwa-Ibom, Rivers, Edo, Abia, and Kaduna are some states that have similar laws and/or have approved maximum punishments for kidnappers.

The Nigerian Senate had in 2017 approved death sentence for kidnappers in the country.

The bill also prescribes 30-year jail term for persons who collude with kidnappers in the country.

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The names in this report, except one, were changed to protect the identities of the victims. Data was sourced by Oluwadamilola Ojetunde.


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